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MY OWN IDEAS (Inspired by a conversation with an old friend) ~ Spring Equinox

(The photo shows "The Transformer", painted in 2016.)

This time I’d like to write about what I, personally, think about life and death in general. Right off the bat, I want to make one thing clear: I have no interest in convincing anyone else that my ideas are “right” or anything like that. This is simply what, after a lifetime, I myself know.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person, but I am definitely a spiritual person, and have been seeking for a spiritual system that feels right to me, it seems, all my life. This is what I have come up with, and it is an amalgam of various things I have heard, read, and experienced in my life.

First, reincarnation. It just makes sense to me. At a dinner after a temple event once, I asked our acting priest about reincarnation. He said he didn’t subscribe to that belief. What? I thought Buddhism was all about reincarnation. But recently I talked to a Zen monk who said that wasn’t part of the Zen system either. I know that various religions have various ideas about what happens when we die. For some, it is very clearcut: either Heaven, where we go when we’ve been “good”, or Hell, where we go when we’ve been “bad”. But it is a one-shot deal – no dress rehearsals or anything. What kind of life you have lived (and especially, whether you have been “saved” i.e. subscribe to a particular religion) determines where you will find yourself after you die. Other religions don’t have this -- they think that this life is all, and that when you die, you just snuff out like a candle.

Neither of these satisfy my need for some organization or process. Why do some people have easy lives and others have hard ones? Why are some people enjoying the ride, while others have to struggle every step of the way? Why is one person born into, say, a rich family in Boston, and another born into a family that is just barely surviving on the streets of Calcutta? If this life is all we have, how are these differences produced? And where does the energy of our present life go when we die? Maybe these are all coincidence, but my personal feeling is that the energy of one lifetime is partly what creates the energy of the next lifetime, including the details of why, where and when. This energy is known as “karmic debt” in some systems. Karma, as I understand it, is an energy that we produce when we live our lives, and may become apparent in the present lifetime, but it also continues into the next lifetime and helps to form the details of the next life. The system is extremely complex and isn’t just an easy answer to the question of why individuals have different kinds of lives. As evolving human beings, we simply don’t have enough insight right now to understand the whole thing.

I must say here that I think that once a soul is born as a human being, there is a kind of ratchet in place that doesn’t allow slippage back to an animal or plant state. In other words, we can’t be “reborn as a cockroach” or whatever as a punishment. Souls may evolve over many lifetimes going upward from animal or plant states, but once one has reached the human level, subsequent lifetimes may only involve rebirth as some other human being, with a “good” situation or a “bad” one depending on the energy that has accumulated. (I myself feel that rebirth may involve other planets or other kinds of existence as well; I think that this system isn’t limited to Earth.)

So in my opinion, what happens when we die? I read a very interesting book in which people talked, under hypnosis, about the ending of their previous lives and what happened next. The accounts were strangely similar. The general idea seems to be that our souls first are greeted by others who have been important to us in the life just ended, and realize that some of these souls have been accompanying us over many lifetimes. Then we go to a kind of “school” where, under guidance from advanced life forms or more advanced souls, we go over the events in our life and their cosmic meaning. We are led to understand why we were born into our situations, why we did certain things, why we met the people we did and why we went through the changes we did. From this we can figure out what kind of life we ought to have next time, in order that our soul’s evolution may continue. Some people under hypnosis actually described the process of choosing the next set of parents!

Two questions surface here. One is, does this happen to everyone? My feeling is, probably not (I got this idea from Gurdjieff). As in theater, there are leading parts, supporting parts, and extras. How this is decided is not for me to say. I think that some human beings are limited to one lifetime, and are not part of a soul’s journey, though they may affect other individual souls and their karma. The second question is, why does this happen at all? We human beings are fascinated by “why” questions, from earliest childhood. I have known people who for one reason or another didn’t seem to understand things about human life that for others came naturally. Are these people, so to speak, at the beginning of their journey? What happens when a human soul is “fully” evolved? Are these souls no longer reborn? In some types of Buddhism, it is regarded as the highest good for a soul to “graduate” from the endless cycle of rebirth (known as the “Wheel of Samsara”) into an enlightened state (called “Nirvana”). Some souls opt to be reborn after this on Earth in order to help others, and these are known as “Bodhisattvas”, something like Christian saints. But the whole system – Why? A friend of mine once said, “It’s like Monday night football.” In other words, it’s just there. At our present level, we probably wouldn’t understand the answer anyway.

It probably isn’t important that we understand the answers to all these questions now. In a science fiction story (by Ursula LeGuin) I read once, spacemen discovered a strange formation on another planet, and exposure to this formation caused one to “know” all the answers, kind of an “instant enlightenment”, whether you wanted it or not. Those who happened upon this formation and went through this process did it through some particular physical sense. One spaceman “heard” the message through his ears; another thought he was blinded, but through a series of tests when he went back to Earth, he realized that what he was seeing was pure Enlightenment. He repudiated this, however, and unlike his ear-struck partner (who ended up founding a church on Earth) he wanted to remain ignorant of The Answers and go back to being a normal questioning person. I seem to remember it led him to suicide. It’s interesting to speculate on what would happen if I came upon this formation. Would I welcome knowing, or would I want to run away from it?

Well, it has been helpful to write this down, but it isn’t set in stone – in the time I have left, I may well change my mind about these ideas. We are all free to form our own opinions about these things, or not to think about them at all. That’s one of the most interesting things about being human.

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The energy part is important. As Buddhism was a growing influence on my beliefs back in my early 20s, I found the reincarnation thing hardest to reconcile with the Catholicism of my upbringing. But the chapters in a book called "Living Zen" broke the philosophy into understandable components, and the energy section got me thinking about electricity, and how there is generally a balance between positive and negative. That life energy had to go somewhere. Fast forward a decade to a zen retreat in the Fuji foothills, where a famous priest told us that reincarnation was brought into Buddhism by the Tibetans, and didn't really belong there. What to believe? I've tried to understand this split in Japanese Buddhis…

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